Ryan Blaney fastest of the NASCAR title contenders in individual practice before the championship

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ryan Blaney was the fastest among NASCAR championship contenders Friday in the only practice session before Sunday’s title-deciding season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

“Ryan Blaney is doing really, really well in Phoenix,” said Blaney crew chief Jonathan Hassler. “There has never been a time when we didn’t have speed.”

Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace, two drivers already eliminated from the playoff field, set the pace in practice Friday night. Blaney finished third, followed by Christopher Bell, one of the final four drivers fighting for the title.

William Byron, winner at Phoenix in the spring, was seventh and Kyle Larson was the slowest driver of the title contenders in eleventh. Larson also hit the wall in his Chevrolet toward the end of the 50-minute practice session.

“We have a little patch of color. “No big deal,” said Larson crew chief Cliff Daniels, who said it was about the 10th time this year the team has had to repair that part of the car after Larson faltered.

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“I don’t have a problem with him putting that much pressure on him,” Daniels added. “That’s not exactly a transgression. He always pushes the car really hard, especially in practice, which is great for us, right? This will let us know what speed he can get out of it and what adjustments we need to make.”

The cup winner will be the best-placed driver among the final four participants on Sunday.

Larson captured the title by winning the race here in Phoenix in 2021 and is back in the championship round for the second time in three years. Bell was in the finals a year ago, while Blaney and Byron are making their first appearances.

Although the oddsmakers have named Larson the betting favorite, it is Blaney who enters the race with the most momentum. He won last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, has two wins in the last five races and has finished second in the last two NASCAR appearances at Phoenix.

Blaney is trying to bring Team Penske to its second straight Cup title after his teammate Joey Logano won a year ago.

Byron and Larson both drive Chevys for Hendrick Motorsports, which won back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021 with Chase Elliott and Larson. Bell is the sole Toyota representative and drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which last won a title in 2019 with Kyle Busch.

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Brian Ashcraft

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